Mariinsky Ballet, orchestra’s immaculate interpretation of ‘La Bayadère’ comes to Zellerbach Hall

Natasha Razina/Courtesy

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On Wednesday, Cal Performances gave an inside look into Zellerbach Hall’s wings and green rooms, which were filled with heaps and heaps of tulle. The Mariinsky Ballet and orchestra had descended upon Berkeley for five nights, in a whirlwind of grand props, intricate costumes and dozens upon dozens of pointe shoes. Performing “La Bayadère,” the acclaimed Russian company that is directed by Yuri Fateev, launched its U.S. tour Oct. 30 and began its stateside entrance with a performance that justified its reputation. 

“La Bayadère,” originally composed over 140 years ago by Ludwig Minkus, follows the twisted love story of a temple attendant, Nikia, and a noble warrior of superior rank, Solor, who is promised to Gamzatti, the daughter of the rajah. Throw in a vengeful father and a spiteful high Brahmin, and the story becomes overwrought by the entanglement of love and death. On opening night, Nikia was played by Ekaterina Kondaurova, Solor by Andrei Yermakov and Gamzatti by Yekaterina Chebykina. Together, the three created a powerful dynamic through their movements and expressions that augmented the music’s already emotional score. 

The orchestra set the pace and mood for the ballet incredibly quickly, as conductor Alexei Repnikov walked out and did not even wait for the crowd’s applause to cease before he struck his first downbeat. The introductory movement began with harsh, full ensemble notes, with plenty of the bass drum and cymbals. The tempo changed again after that brief period, with sweet, sweeping passages of layered violins and upper winds. The beginning music symbolized the ballet before the dancers even set foot on the stage — the night was to be dynamic and incredibly complex. 

As the curtains rose for Act I, the backdrop depicted a painted jungle scene with a waterfall and even lush vegetation. The entrance to a temple framed one side of the stage, massive in size and presence. A Buddhist statue and a fireplace finished the stage’s construction and introduced the Indian theme and storyline that the ballet would follow. As the main dancers were introduced, each had moments where they could build their characters. Kondaurova’s Nikia was sleek and reserved, but grew into a force of harsh reckoning when she rejected the high Brahmin’s proposal of love and blossomed into the image of youthful passion when she had moments with her beloved. Yermakov softened when he danced with Kondaurova, but played the stoic warrior for the other parts of the ballet. The dancers showed a wide range of emotions as they deeply threw themselves into their movements and overdramatized their facial expressions. 

The music exemplified each character, assigning different instruments for each emotion. Kondaurova came out to the plucking of violins and the harp in Act I, when her life was full of optimistic love, but the mood changed in Act III when her love was lost, as the viola and lower strings sang out mournfully. In contrast, Yermakov took leaps and bounds to louder marchlike passages with quick violin notes and steady brass beats. Each grand jeté of his was something of amazement, as he performed a high number in one dance only to come back to the stage a second later to dance with Chebykina for their wedding sequence. The chemistry between the dancers, whether Yermakov was with Kondaurova or Chebykina, was seamless, as each pair moved as one continuous body while Yermakov impressively lifted the females up effortlessly. 

In the final act, Yermakov went into a deep sleep and entered into the Kingdom of the Shades, where ghosts appeared to him. A mesh screen added to the sense of ethereality, and the music had the sense of a lullaby with extended notes and light pizzicato plucks. The female side of the company came to the stage in full regalia, their starched white tutus bringing them out in contrast to the darker, dreamlike background. One by one, each dancer gracefully floated out onto the stage with the same movements, the whole company snaking around the stage. This slowed down the pace of the ballet, creating an ambiance of restoration and tranquility. As Kondaurova and Yermakov reunited in the Kingdom of the Shades, the feeling of eternality was left with the audience to conclude the performance. 

The Mariinsky Ballet and orchestra combined multiple mediums of art to constantly challenge the level of perfection that companies can achieve. Each dancer in the company, but especially the principal ones, epitomized the beauty of ballet, moving their muscles in seemingly impossible ways. Even when performing a ballet of classical repertoire, the company brings a new dynamic with its attention to detail — every emotion, every turned foot, every note was performed with perfection. 

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected].